The Dog Ate My Compass: 7 Life Hacks for Getting Unstuck & Finding HomeFeb 01, 2023
It was an ordinary day in 1980, and for reasons only five year olds understand, I was dragging a stick and walking in aimless circles around our little house on Campground Road. One moment I was meditative and carefree, and the next, just as I passed beneath my parents’ bedroom window, I was panicked and hysterical.
I raced inside covered in snot and tears, my sounds not yet making sense. You can imagine my parents' alarm. Was she stung by a bee? Was something broken? Was she doing that thing where Lassie calls for help?
My mom began to rub my legs up and down, to search under my t-shirt for unexplained rashes. Then through my sobs, I flung at her the terrifying revelation that had dawned on me only minutes earlier like a cold, black sun: “One day, you and dad are going to die.”
I've approached most of my life much like the first five year old you meet in this story. I am a mostly happy person who likes Mondays. I also like birthdays and New Years — anytime when I can imagine a fresh start. As much as I like progress, I enjoy a good reset. I understand there are intractable problems in the world. Some of them are even part of my everyday life. I just have this knack for sidelining them, a mostly healthy coping mechanism that keeps my boat afloat while the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
But as you’ve seen, this sunny optimism is not immune to an existential slap across the face. Just as I had no way of knowing at five years old that parents die—until suddenly this awareness was conjured for me out of dust and air— I had no way of knowing then that it would be life’s existential circumstances that would really fuck me up.
When I planned this article, I wanted to give you tools about how to get unstuck. And indeed, in just moments you'll learn three next-level life hacks to help you break those tangled little knots that keep you from becoming your very best self. As a life-long encourager, ultimate cheerleader of humans, I believe strongly in you reaching your full potential and kicking ass at life.
But the more I researched this topic, and the more I got honest about my recent rumble with the relentlessness of existence, the more I’ve realized that what I really want are not magic keys for getting unstuck. What I want to know—and suspect that you do too—is what to do when the life hacks don’t work, when the science of smiling and a tap dancing class couldn’t possibly be strong enough to drag me from the shit show. In other words, what do you do when you’re all grown up and for reasons quite personal to you, you discover that you’re not stuck — you’re lost.
Whoah, geez, Victoria. I just need a handout on happiness, not a full-blown paradigm shift. I get it. Some days we need a little bridge from here to there, not a ride with creepy Charon on the River Styx.
If that sounds like you, here are some of the greatest hits for doing what my grandmother Bobo called “getting your panties out of a wad.” If this unfortunate situation has ever befallen you, you know exactly how much relief can be found from a rectified wedgie.
And let’s not yet talk about the special anguish that happens when the tangle is upfront.
Of course Bobo never used this phrase to talk about a physical condition. Its proper usage only ever referred to an emotional condition and typically a fleeting one. I am taking liberties with the expression because we know exactly what to do when it comes to a knicker twist. But what we know far less about, and is seldom taught in school, is how to restore peace and calm to our inner world when we’re hurting.
3 Ways to Untwist Your Knickers
#1 Practice Emotional First Aid
Science tells us that we should wash an abrasion before adding a bandage. And even if we skip this step, we know that sprinkling in a little staph bacteria is a bad idea. “Nobody decides to take a knife and dig deeper when we cut ourselves,” says psychologist and author Guy Winch in his Tedx Talk on emotional first aid, “But that’s often what we do when we’re hurting psychologically.”
Winch argues that too many people worsen their emotional pain by ruminating on painful memories. Rumination is a form of repetitive thinking when you dwell on distressing experiences and what caused them.
My wise and perceptive therapist Dr. B hears my ruminations sometimes and has a useful saying that helps shutdown my navel gazing. Dr. B says some situations and some people are simply ‘un-understandable.’ “Parents are un-understandable,” he said once, when I was attempting something like math on my mother. “Addiction is un-understandable,” he explained, when I couldn’t understand why love was not enough to cure a family member's descent into hard living. As someone who’s relied on science and sacred texts to help make sense of the world, rumination has at times tricked me into believing I’m on the verge of a big discovery. Of course in such times, it’s typically more breakdown than breakthrough.
Dr. B doesn’t mean that there are no theories, reasons, or research to explain family systems and disease. I think his ‘un-understandable’ mind hack is about accepting that logical thinking (perhaps one of the false promises of rumination) can’t help us understand emotional wounds that occur inside the expansive worlds of love and loyalty.
Breaking free of rumination takes practice, and this practice can have lasting effects. Winch advises us to one, notice when you’re going down the rabbit hole and two, take an immersive thought time-out and do something else.
A short list of healthy distractions
- Go for a brisk walk.
- Watch a puppy video.
- Throw down some jumping jacks.
- Watch the birds outside your window.
- Wash your face.
- Draw stick figures.
- Play a round of sudoku.
- Learn a dad joke.
Much like a round of distracted meditation, I know two whole minutes may seem like a tall order. But you have to keep at it. (Did you know that excessive rumination puts you at risk for clinical depression?) The more you perform self-interventions rather than allowing your mind to autoplay the negative tape, the more you short circuit rumination. Winch offers several more tools for dealing with rumination and healing from rejection, guilt, and fear in his book Emotional First Aid.
#2 Learn to Exit the Comparison Train
According to well-known author, speaker, and shame researcher Brene Brown, social comparison gets us into trouble—with others and with ourselves. “How we perceive our standings or rankings with these comparisons can affect our self-concept, our level of aspiration, and our feelings of well-being,” writes Brown in her book Atlas of the Heart. In what Brown herself has described as her most important work, Atlas of the Heart outlines 87 different emotions and experiences so we can learn to recognize and articulate our feelings. Her argument goes like this:
- One of our most basic needs is for connection
- But we can’t connect with other people until we learn to connect with ourselves
- And we can’t connect with ourselves unless we know how to make sense of our experiences using language.
According to Brown, having a complex emotional vocabulary is the super-highway to self-knowing and being known. (If you’ve ever wished you could be a student in one of Brown’s classes at the University of Texas, you should also know that Atlas of the Heart was turned into an HBO series where Brown personally teaches all 87 emotions and experiences to the audience in an interactive lecture format.)
"Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other—it's trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, 'Be like everyone else, but better.'"
So, how does social comparison cause us problems? According to Brown, comparison operates like a default mechanism below our surface of awareness. Rather than choosing to compare ourselves to others, Brown writes, “Many social psychologists consider social comparison something that happens to us.” Whether it’s upward (She’s better than me) or downward (I’m better than her), comparison can make us feel worse about ourselves and affect our motivation. And it’s easy for it to slip into rumination, which we’ve already learned is an unhealthy pastime.
Like Winch, Brown notes that becoming aware of comparison is the first step in choosing how we respond. It’s also important that you don’t beat yourself up. Comparison is just part of being human. Finally, doing the work to accurately label what we’re feeling will give us the tools to unlock our own misery. Brown outlines several intriguing emotions in the comparison family from admiration to reverence, jealousy to envy, resentment, schadenfreude (pleasure derived from someone else’s suffering) or, one of my favorites, freudenfreude (enjoying someone else’s success).
When I read this chapter, I immediately thought about what happens in my brain at my workout classes. As a 40-something mother of three who enjoys hot yoga, I wish I could tell you that I don’t notice my classmates' younger and firmer looking bodies. I work hard to stay in shape but there's quite a bit of softness in places that were once toned and smooth. Most days it feels impossible to skip the comparison between my own aging body and the youthful yogis. Comparing myself to someone 20 years younger is not exactly a pick me up, and the distraction itself is the part that makes me feel the worst. I do yoga for the feelings of zen and empowerment — not self-critique.
But if I apply Brown's insight, my feelings of shame are making the effects of my upward comparison worse. Rather than focusing on whose butt is best (I know, I cringe as I type this but trying to take my own medicine here), I can refocus my thoughts on noticing my classmate's strength, appreciating her presence, and channeling my thoughts to wish her a great day. And if I change how I let the comparison make me feel, I end up with some positive thoughts left for me. After all, I showed up for class which is indeed cause to celebrate my badassery. I know I will need to practice this. Lucky for me, most yoga classes are 60 minutes long.
#3 Name it to Tame it for the Win!
Habits have had a rebrand in the 21st century. While smoking and fingernail biting used to overshadow healthier habits like teeth brushing, habit researchers are changing how we think about ordinary behaviors. For habit nerds like me, it’s been a very exciting decade. From William Duhigg's The Power of Habit to James Clear’s Atomic Habits, the last few years have taught us that how we spend our days is turning out to be the breaking news on how we’ll spend our lives.
If we’re not careful, a lot of our waking hours are spent on autopilot. And that's a frightening wake up call. Because that means we could miss it—we could miss our lives. By the way, this is exactly the kind of thought that really pains me. Because then I start thinking about all the time I’ve missed and begin cataloging moments, real and imagined, and soon I’m longing for time I want back and bargaining with God for second chances.
This whirligig thinking represents the perfect instance for what psychiatrist and bestselling author Daniel Siegel calls name-it-to-tame-it. As it turns out, neurobiology has shown that we can control our thoughts and end negative thought spirals. The tricky thing is our triggers mostly happen below our awareness.
As we’ve discussed, we’re not very practiced at noticing our thoughts, which makes us even worse at things like giving ourselves emotional first aid or reframing comparisons. And that’s one of the many reasons that meditation has surged into the mainstream. Through something as simple as breathing, meditation first teaches you how to notice your thoughts in order to eventually quiet your mind. I use mediation apps like Headspace to develop the self-awareness muscles I did not learn at home or school.
Siegel outlines the science behind controlling our thoughts, even when they want to take us for a ride, in his book Mindsight. The name-it / tame-it approach works like this: when you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to describe your internal state without judging or rationalizing it. As Siegel explains, consciously labeling intense emotions signals your brain to send calming neurotransmitters to your brain’s emotional centers, in turn creating a physical response. And just imagine how good you’ll be at name it/tame it if you learn to articulate all 87 of Brown’s emotions and experiences. By the way, Brown says that most people can only accurately name three emotions: happy, sad, and, in her words, pissed off. So if you want the promised relief of name it/tame it, double down on adding to your emotional lexicon.
Four Ways Home
Last week I sat down on Dr. B’s couch and skipped the pleasantries. “I’ve been dreading coming here,” I told him. Dr. B is not insulted by this greeting. We go way back. We met 12 years ago when I was unhappily married and searching for a cure that would fix everything. But I was like a drowning person afraid of the lifeguard. I needed help but every Friday when I showed up I reassured my therapist that everything was fine. Then, a year after I met Dr. B, my sister died from an overdose.
At 35 years old, I didn’t know that some unexamined anxiety was the superstar behind my lifetime award for Adversity & Achievement. Anxiety was my friend who ran my hypervigilance program. My childhood had been a mix of loving family interactions and traumatic episodes, where key family members took turns leaving and staying away. Drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and prison (just to name a few) were grown-up problems that made repeated appearances in my developmental years. Being a little too smart for my own good, I relocated 3000 miles away at 18 in some kind of peace offering to the angry curses that had haunted my people for generations. It almost worked. But when Bell died, the hypervigilance team did not see it coming and freaked. (Which is funny because the recon team later ID many red flags covered in dirt).
We were going into overdrive. Except there was nothing to do, fix, or achieve. Bell, my compatriot childhood trauma survivor, was gone and all the shit I'd buried wanted zombie time. My body was like “systems go!” and also like “systems shutdown!”
And so I flew home to Georgia, attended Bell’s memorial, delivered her eulogy, and never ever cried. Not when my brother howled at the funeral home, not when my father confessed he wanted to literally climb into her grave. My instinct was to breathe in all the sadness and skip the breath out.
It took several years for me to regain the ability to cry. And I tried so hard. The closest I would come to an actual tear was feeling sad because I couldn’t cry. My breakthrough finally came a few years after I’d divorced and met Kyle, who is now my husband. He had this habit where he’d tear up at sentimental commercials, and I learned that if I looked at him this would happen to me too. Kyle came to believe he was dating a crier and eventually that became true.
Last week I didn’t want to see Dr. B because I had been avoiding something big. Whenever a flash of anguish would surface, I would do the first part of what all the experts in this article have suggested. Step one: I would notice it. Step two: toss it into the backseat like a hot potato. When you’ve been working on yourself for a long time, you know this little game is going to come back and bite you in the ass. Pain is inescapable. But if you’re afraid to face it, and I was, you hope you have enough rope to wait it out a little longer. As the days went by, I could feel myself numbing out, gradually receding from everyday moments under a gauze of sadness that I didn’t want to touch.
A few weeks before, we’d seen my oldest son at Christmas. He’s a smart, attractive, musical, and friendly young man we love with all our hearts. He’s also been battling a brutal case of substance abuse disorder for several years. He’s had a few beautiful rounds of sobriety but the addiction wants to take it all. We've tried all the treatment options you can imagine, and I’ve been to places I never dreamed of going as a parent. If you’ve ever wondered who answers spam calls on their cell phone, it’s me. I never know if it’ll be him, and more than once, it was. When I say that he was not doing well at Christmas, you can bet there’s a lot more to it. Maybe one day I’ll tell you. But for now I want to focus on what happens when circumstances start to poke holes in the meaning of your existence.
For a long time, the events of what has happened with my son’s addiction have felt like they were auditioning to become my life’s primary story. It was a story known only to a handful of my closest friends, and so for the most part, it had been a very private story. Early on, I experienced the highs and lows of his addiction and recovery as if they were clues to whether or not I, along with the many other people who loved him, was going to have a good life. I worked hard to demote this uncertainty to a thematic element rather than a story. That’s because life had already shown me that I needed a story of my own. Mothers, please hear me: your story cannot be your children’s lives. Motherhood is a theme, not a story.
My problem was that although I knew how to reassign said literary devices (a highly underrated skill), aspects of this theme contributed to me feeling really sad and low. And to make things just a little more complicated, I wasn’t just feeling this way about my son’s life. I was feeling this way about life.
This is what I did not want to get honest about with myself or Dr. B. I did not want to admit that life felt like a sham. But I told him anyway.
That day, Dr. B helped me make a gentle right turn toward this unwanted self-disclosure. And the big beautiful mess of my despair spilled out of my eyeballs. I grieved for a lot of stuff that day and left feeling lighter but not exactly happy. When the person who made you a mother is on a collision course with death, and you’ve accepted that miracles happen but might not happen for you, it takes time to regain your footing, much less find the path. And when there’s no map for where you’re going because you’ve never been there before, you tend to wander around. And not in a Tolkien-esque, all-who-wander-are-not-lost way, but like a child who can’t remember the way home.
“If you’re lost, start here,” said Dr. Phil Stutz in his eponymous documentary directed by actor and patient, Jonah Hill. Stutz is a 2022 film where Hill takes you inside therapy with Stutz, a psychiatrist known for his work with actors, writers, and creatives. Stutz’s treatment philosophy has been described as both brilliant and unorthodox, and a few days after seeing Dr. B, he was exactly who I needed to meet while sitting in my recliner and drinking canned wine.
When you want to feel better, it can seem counterintuitive to hear someone say there are three constants in life that you can never escape: pain, uncertainty, and constant work. But that’s exactly how Stutz indoctrinates his patients. Because it’s only when you’re grappling with this reality, or the fruits of what Dr. B has called ‘unwanted wisdom’ that you can cultivate the stamina required for living life in the upside down.
“The only way to find out what you should be doing and who you are, is to activate your life force,” says Stutz. “Because the life force is the only part of you that actually is capable of guiding you when you’re lost.”
If activating your life force sounds like a jedi mind trick, don’t worry. It’s actually far more basic in its application. There’s even a diagram Stutz draws in the movie. (I later learned Stutz wrote a book about his five core principles called The Tools in 2013. Visual learners will appreciate all of the hand drawings that go with the lessons.) According to Stutz, the life force is like a pyramid with three levels that outline our relationships to our physical body, others, and the self. He promotes working on your life force in this order:
- Your relationship to your physical body
- Your relationship to other people
- Your relationship to yourself.
"If you’re lost don’t try to figure it out. Let go and work on your life force first.” —Dr. Stutz
#4 Take Care of Your Physical Body
Caring for your body may not seem like much of a life hack, but the motivation to move your body much less to eat more vegetables and less queso is hard to find when your internal tape keeps shouting at you that nothing matters. But Stutz reminds us that there are real rewards to focusing on improving your diet, moving your body, and improving your sleep. How much better you ask? In the film, Stutz reports that most people start feeling 75% better right away. There's a lot of research agreeing with Stuz's assessment that caring for your physical body will improve your sense of well-being. Today, the field of medicine is also starting to look more closely at gut health as another way for understanding and treating chronic disease and poor mental hygiene. Supergut, written by the best-selling author of Wheatbelly Dr. William Davis, takes a deep dive into how an unkempt human microbiome can wreak havoc on your physical and mental health.
#5 Be in Relationship to Others
When it comes to relationships, Stutz highlights a phenomenon that happens when someone feels depressed. He says that most people when they’re depressed don’t actually end their relationships, “Their relationships are like a ship disappearing over the horizon and they start to get pulled away from their life.” He compares our relationships to other people to handholds on the side of a mountain–you stick your hand in and they help you reach the top. What’s interesting about this life hack is that Stutz says it almost doesn’t matter who you engage with because when you’re intentionally trying to reach back into your own life another person "represents the whole human race symbolically.” In other words, the effort of making contact with others is what gives us direction and a sense of purpose.
As an extrovert who enjoys many deep friendships, I prioritize my relationships above most things. For me, I also have a capacity to feel connected to other people through my writing. Not writing about my son's addiction and how it's affected me has been very disconnecting. Spending the last two weeks writing this article with a purpose of helping myself and others has felt like I'm riding an elevator that's slowly going up. I'm not gonna lie—I will probably freak out a little when I hit publish. Telling the truth takes courage.
I know a lot of people do not yearn for the life of an extrovert or want to bare their naked soul in memoir. And that's what I like so much about Stutz's advice. Simply having an intentional interaction with your barista can be a lifeline.
#6 Pursue a Relationship with Your Self
If it seems like having a relationship with your physical body and your self is the same thing, there’s a reason why Stutz breaks these apart. On some of my harder days, I get sick and tired of hanging out with myself. But Stutz believes that getting into a relationship with your unconscious mind is the pinnacle of working on your life force. He recommends using writing as a tool for discovery because the ideas will show you what’s happening below your surface of awareness.
In my former life as an English professor, I used fast writing as a way to help writers engage with their conscious thoughts. So often students would rush to write the finished draft and either hit writer's block or turn in complete sentences with empty thoughts. The pressure to write well was typically responsible for both problems. Composition theorist Peter Elbow was one of the first teachers of this kind of informal writing in academia because it allowed writers to outrace their ‘internal censor.' So when you journal I highly recommend adopting a habit of writing quickly. Stutz says, "Nobody knows what's in their unconscious unless they activate," and since we can't record our dreams, fast writing can help us come closer to mining the answers that already exist inside us.
#7 Add One More Pearl to the String
I am embracing the simplicity of Stutz’s life force formula, along with one more of his teachings. “The String of Pearls” is the last life hack I want to share with you because anyone can benefit from it and also because it reminds me of a conversation I had once with Dr. B about my long history of coping with painful realities by keeping my chin up. “It’s like life handed you a shit sandwich,” says Dr. B good-naturedly. “And you were like, “Yum! This tastes great.”
The String of Pearls is a much healthier version of shit sandwich denial. It goes like this. Imagine a string of unfinished pearls and your job is always to add the next pearl. Except no matter what you do, according to Stutz, you can’t change the fact that inside each of those pearls is a small brown turd. The philosophy centers on the belief that you must keep going, but don’t delude yourself that progress means it’ll be perfect. As a principle, a little crap is baked into the treasure.
Five Therapists Walk into a Bar
"People do things when they're ready," Dr. B told me once. And I believe this armchair wisdom holds up. I am not skipping around yet but I am not incapable of skipping either. I've started grocery shopping again and taking supplements again. After enduring two months of an office lamp turning on and off every few minutes, I have reinstalled a favorite yellow desk lamp that had been languishing in a closet. A working light in the room where I write for money — look at me go!
I don't know if your problem right now is a simple panty wad or a full blown shit sandwich. But I do know that there are many problems in the world. I hope one of these seven life hacks from the fab five therapists introduced here shine some light on a dark spot that needs some love. In the very least, know you are not alone. I go forth to do this work myself, for me and maybe for you too. Perhaps now the work can become my map, and the acceptance that a good life is both beauty and pain, the breadcrumbs that lead back home.